May Swenson In The Library Of America
The Library of America published this volume of the "Collected Poems" of May Swenson (1913 -- 1989) in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the poet's birth. The volume includes the seven books of poems Swenson published during her life together with a large selection of uncollected poems. It also includes a short collection of Swenson's essays about poetry. The book preserves Swenson's poetry in an attractive volume and will likely become the definitive edition of her work. Landon Hammer, professor of English at Yale University, edited the volume, which includes as well a valuable chronology of Swenson's life. Hammer also edited the Library of America's volume of Hart Crane's poetry and letters.
Settings of two Swenson poems by the American composer William Bolcom in a recording by soprano Carole Farley with the composer at the piano got me interested in the poet and provide a short introduction to her work. The first, "The Digital Wonder Watch (An Advertisement)" (p. 488 this volume) comes from Swenson's 1987 collection "In other Words" and shows her combination of whimsy, satire and depth. Swenson's satire on technology and advertising comes through in the composer's tick-tock piano setting. While describing the many advanced features of her "wonderful watch" the poet asks, "Does it show how to wind up/a broken heart?"
The second of Swenson's poems "Night Practice" is included in her 1963 collection "To Mix with Time" (p. 152 of this volume). Bolcom set the work as part titled "I will Breathe a Mountain" of poems by American women. The poem captures the experimental, modernistic cast of many of Swenson's poems in which the theme is mirrored by the form of the poem on the page. The poem is written in the form of a pyramid as the poet meditates and tries to come to terms with the inevitability of death. The poem concludes with the line "I will breathe a valley, I will breathe a mountain", which Bolcom adopted as the title of his song cycle.
Swenson was the child of Swedish immigrants who were devout Mormons. She lived until graduating from college in Utah before moving to Greenwich Village where she lived for many years. She lived the Bohemian life of a young artist supporting herself by a variety of jobs until she became established as a poet. Swenson ultimately won a great deal of critical recognition. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Grant, and the Bollingen Prize for poetry among other honors. During her life, she had lovers and companions, male and female.
The American poet Elizabeth Bishop greatly influenced Swenson and the two became close friends. Swenson wrote several poems to or about her mentor. As did Bishop, Swenson wrote many fables about animals, such as "The Lion" (p.6). I found that Swenson's work has a teasing quality that moves between fun and seriousness. She has a broad range and writes about animals and nature as well as about city life in for example "Riding the 'A'" (p. 187). She writes about science and its relation to poetry and shows a particular interest in the astronauts and in space exploration. There are poems about Swenson's travels to the American West, to Florida, and to Europe. Many poems are set on the Delaware shore where Swenson lived in the late years of her life. Many of Swenson's poems have an erotic character. After her death, collections made and published of her "love poems" drawing heavily on uncollected works.
The poems are rhythmical and beautifully crafted with detailed, specific observation and a poet's eye and ear for the precise word. Many of the poems are immediately accessible. Swenson is best-known as a modernist for her efforts to integrate form with sense, as is the case in "Night Practice" among many other poems. Swenson used many different shapes in different poems and even varied the font size of the text. This collection captures the experimental character of her work. Probably the most characteristic of Swenson's books is "Iconographs" (1970) in which the form captures the poem in the manner of an iconographic painting.
Swenson wrote of the surfaces of things, but she did so deliberately. She wrote of sight and language for their own sakes to show things afresh and also to make the reader pause and see things in a new way and for oneself. The poems have depth and concern for meaning together with the surface playfulness. The poems are almost all short, but two of the lengthy poems, "Banyan" and "Some Quadrangles, the 1982 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Poem" capture much of the spirit and purpose of her writing. In an essay, "The Poet as Antispecialist", Swenson explained:
"What is the experience of poetry? Choosing to analyze this experience for myself after an engrossment of many years, I see it based in a craving to get through the curtains of things as they appear to things as they are and then into the larger, wilder space of things as they are becoming. This ambition involves a paradox: an instinctive belief in the senses as exquisite tools for this investigation and, at the same time, a suspicion about their crudeness."
The Library of America deserves thanks for its efforts to celebrate the best of American accomplishment in literature and poetry. May Swenson's poems deserve their place in this celebration. I was pleased to have the opportunity to get to know her writing in this volume of her Collected Poems.